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How do you CEO? / Margot Balch @ The OneTwo
A learning journey of how startup CEOs work.
Over the past 6 six months, I've interviewed 10+ CEOs to learn how to do my job better.
It was one of the best things I’ve ever done for my own professional development and I hated the idea of keeping all the insights to myself. They all kindly agreed to share our candid conversations so that we can all learn from each other.
I’ll be posting the conversations every Monday and a summary of my own insights at the end of the series.
If you want to come along the CEO journey - hit subscribe 💥
#9 Margot Balch / CEO @ The OneTwo
How do you CEO?
It changes so much over the startup lifecycle.
The main role of the CEO is to set the vision and then implement it.
In an early-stage startup there is a lofty vision that gets investors excited.
But then there’s the question of how do we get it done, allocating scarce resources and attention.
They feel like really different universes.
It feels like scuba diving.
It can be disconcerting to move fast from deep water back to surface level - dizzying.
Execution success is all about people.
Everyone in a startup is stretched, so much is about clarity of what’s important.
Before hiring I think deeply about what excellence looks like.
The goal is to be as clear as I can on who is needed.
People come to interviews to pitch themselves, part of my job is to make sure they are right, that they will enjoy this role. In interviews, I really try to understand what gives people energy and if it’s aligned with what we’re able to offer.
It is very easy to end up in a negative rhythm with team members.
“Here is what you did wrong and here is how to do better” is no fun.
Flipping the narrative to “this is where you’re going (the dream) and here’s how to work towards that” is much more positive. I try to spend more time aligning on the destination rather than critiquing the past.
The JD is the beginning.
I sit down and think what a really great interaction would look like with someone in this role.
How often do we want to talk?
What do I always want my authority over?
What can they push and make decisions on?
What I’ve often messed up is getting too optimistic about a new hire and cementing them in my mind as the next rising star. I give them lots of leeway and say lots of positive things, but then I notice there’s a gap - starting with new hires on a pedestal is a mistake - it leaves them cornered - the only place to move is down.
It’s a torture cycle and it is hard to recover from. The prevention is clarity and, for me, not getting over-excited with insufficient data.
When I hire now, I imagine the person and ask myself “what would a really great meeting with them look like?”
How do you set strategy?
The big vision is our ultimate goal, for example, for us it’s to become the #1 destination for lingerie shopping online.
Strategy is how you break it down into action. There are a lot of steps to get there!
Strategy requires a bunch of inputs, thinking and reflections on how things are going. I feed my brain with customer reactions, read lots of books and listen to many podcasts.
Then I need space.
Space to think, reflect, research and write.
That’s where creativity happens.
But it is hard to make space if you’re a Type A and just want to get stuff done.
Strategy breakthroughs often happen under the shower or on a big walk.
How do you communicate the strategy?
It is hard because it keeps changing.
Even with my cofounder we sometimes tell each other things that we assumed were always part of the plan, when in fact it was the first time we verbalised them to each other.
Pitching and investor management can help crystallise that - really learning to articulate the plan concisely. Sometimes as a founder those activities can feel like a time sink, but I do think they can help to step back and articulate what’s important.
How do you set goals?
Setting goals is an ongoing and iterative process.
We’re scrappy and small.
We’re drinking from the firehose every day.
The only guarantee is that we will drop balls.
We are under-resourced and won’t be able to do everything.
But that’s just where early-stage startups are at.
I try to bring self-compassion and forgiveness, and it’s critical to maintain faith between us as co-founders.
There will be important balls that both of us will drop.
How do you communicate sensitive information?
I’m big on transparency.
I ran an 80 people company when HQ suddenly decided to cut our business.
We got the team together the next day and told them. And then we gave them space, but we also had 1-2 daily check-ins so there was total transparency.
Ultimately, the team appreciated it and they supported the business above and beyond what we could have expected. As a result of their commitment, we were able to sell the business and keep most of their jobs.
My view on bad news is it needs to be delivered fast.
It can be tempting to procrastinate and do small talk. That feels awful to experience from the other side - everything seems rosy and then suddenly it flips. I had a medical professional do this to me once when I was pregnant - 10 minutes of upbeat small talk, followed by “we don’t think your baby will make it”. It was horrific because I’d assumed given their tone that there was no news and was feeling happy.
So now I’m quick to break the bad news. I start the meeting with “Hi good to see you, I have some bad news”.
I can’t expect that they will like me or walk out of the meeting feeling good.
It is bad news, so I own it, deliver it and then give them space.
What other advice do you have for CEOs?
I had this really interesting journey as founder of an early-stage business as I had my son mid-fundraise. I had pitches the day before he was born.
I was like screw it.
I have a strong background, I’ve built startups before and if anyone can run a startup with a baby, why not me. My co-founder was excited about it, too. We called it “radically integrating babies and business”.
I brought my tiny baby to everything - investor pitches, team meetings, 1:1s.
It was completely fine, nobody blinked an eyelid.
Audacity is important as a leader. Once he started developing his own opinions around 4-5 months I had to separate work and care.
I’m still testing if there are ways to integrate my young kids with my work. Maybe they can come to social events? Could that even help the team feel closer to me?
As founders, we have the opportunity to test what works for us, the rhythms that allow us to bring our best selves to work. For me, it’s a constant work in progress.
My advice: be audacious in testing what the optimal setup is for you, for your energy and output. Founder burnout is a startups’ #1 enemy.